The Pennine Way

Walked in August - September 2007

Day 9 – Sunday 2nd September

Maize Beck - Alston
Pennine Way Distance: 25 miles. Cumulative: 178 miles

Morning at Maize Beck
Morning at Maize Beck

We were up by six-thirty. I failed to get any decent sleep, and Darryl hardly slept at all. Breakfast was a brief affair, keen as we were to pack up and leave, and by a quarter to seven we were walking away from Maize Beck in the rain, wind and cold, hoping that the rest of the day would bring more pleasant weather. According to the guide book we weren’t far from High Cup Nick now, one of the most awesome and beautiful geological features along the Pennine Way, and sure enough, after about three quarters of an hour, we were standing on the edge of it, looking down past the wall of mist to our right, into the vast bowl, gouged from the mountain by ice-age glaciers, and beyond to the lower valley in the distance. It was a glorious spot, and it was a shame we hadn’t been there at a different time, as early morning clearly wasn’t the best time to see it.

High Cup
High Cup

It was cold, misty and we really didn’t feel like hanging around for too long, so we skirted around the edge of the scar and continued along the way, stopping at one point so we could phone our parents and update them on our progress. Watched by the nearby sheep, we again used the toilet facilities (that again didn’t exist), then carried on following the path that soon became unpleasantly rocky and precarious.

Not long after descending Dod Hill we were greeted by the very welcoming sight of Dufton. It was quiet when we reached the main road leading past the camp site and on toward the green. We stopped at the Youth Hostel and met a friendly hiker called Magnus who was just setting out toward Green Fell, the first of four peaks that we too would have to climb before descending Little Dun Fell and walking the long Corpse Road toward Alston. Magnus was walking from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, an endeavour that had already taken him several weeks, to raise money for Cancer Research UK. He never told us himself, but we later found out that his mother had died the year before, and he was undertaking the walk for charity in her honour. He was a pleasant, intelligent middle-aged chap who had previously been working as a tree-surgeon and who clearly loved the outdoors. He’d tackled these particular fells before, so would likely make good time, and we therefore doubted we’d see him again as we wanted to stop at the youth hostel to see if they could book us into the hostel at Alston. We wished Magnus good luck and said goodbye.

Darryl went inside the hostel to talk to a member of staff about the booking, while I waited outside. A large number of people came out of the hostel while I waited, many of them in groups and some of them dressed in cycle clothing. The hostel looked to be quite popular, and I imagined we may have had trouble getting beds if we had been able to get there the day before. Darryl emerged shortly and told me that we now had a room booked for us at Alston and that the Dufton hostel could do us a couple of packed lunches to take with us. This sounded like a great idea, so he went back inside to wait for them to be made. Not long afterwards he returned with two rounds of cheese and pickle sandwiches each, a drink, biscuits, fruit and cakes. Bliss. We tucked into the sandwiches as we walked off looking for the continuation of the route, hoping the day wouldn’t bring as much effort as the previous day had, and that the ascents in particular wouldn’t be too steep.

We turned back down the road and took a left, down a smaller road until at the end we found the lane we were looking for. As we walked down the lane we found it was starting to get a little warmer, so we took our jackets off and tied them around our waists. I was actually hoping it might be a nice sunny day for us, and that we might get some spectacular views from the top of the fells. As it happens I was hoping for too much on both counts. As we walked up the gradually steepening and tree-lined Hurning Lane, past Coatsike Farm, we heard a vehicle’s horn in the field to our right and saw a farmer driving a flat-bed truck behind a flock of sheep, beeping his horn every now and again to stop them from slowing down and going in the undesired direction. I never saw a man more in need of a dog.

Ahead we crossed Great Rundale Beck via a bridge of stone slabs, and the weather now seemed to be turning colder again. The green grass was giving way to darker and rougher pasture, and I had a feeling that the path itself was going to get tougher too. At Swindale Beck we crossed another footbridge, then climbed up the side of a chasm, following the route of the beck, noticing as we did so, the descending mist and light rain. The four fells, in particular Cross Fell, have their own weather systems, something we had experienced while climbing Great Shunner Fell two days before. In Cross Fell’s case it is referred to as the Helm Wind, a helmet of cloud that clings to its summit and punishes all those who enter. We were experiencing the effects of this as we began the real ascent to the top of Green Fell, though the mist and rain at that point were just a precursor to the true horror further on.

After a mile or so of steady, if hard climbing, we saw someone descending toward us through the mist. It was Magnus, who was as surprised at seeing us as we were at him. Near Knock Old Man, a tall cairn made from large stones, on the summit of Green Fell, he had stopped to have a rest. When he had been ready to carry on he had somehow lost his bearings, and instead if pressing on toward Great Dun Fell, he had ended up following the path he’d walked up back down the side of Green Fell. He seemed quite cheery, if a little embarrassed, about the mix-up, but was determined to climb quickly back up and rectify his mistake. We followed him up to the top, then stopped by the large cairn to rest, watching Magnus disappear into the mist once he’d located the real continuation of the route.

After we’d eaten we stood, packed up and groaned as the weather now seemed to fluctuate between light rain and hail. It was a lot colder now too, though not enough to be a problem yet, so we got moving to warm ourselves up, and headed in the direction we’d last seen Magnus. It took a while to find the right direction and path, as several trails led into rocks and mist, causing Darryl to swear and curse the guidebook continually for not being helpful enough in such dire weather conditions. Eventually we found our way, and were heading down a steep, undulating path toward a road that led up toward the summit of Great Dun Fell, the next peak. Magnus was nowhere to be seen, and had either pressed on ahead or been swallowed up by the mist never to be seen again. Darryl’s frustration with the trail and the poor visibility led him to suggest we take a steep, winding tarmac road up to the radar installation on top of Great Dun Fell instead of the actual route marked on the map, to make things easier for us. I agreed with the detour and we slogged up the road, the fog thickening and the hail intensifying making conditions truly awful. Although it was a well-maintained, wide road, there were no vehicles on it, nor people, though this was hardly surprising given the current white-out. We pushed on up this twisting, turning road until eventually we reached the top and found the radar station, our teeth-chattering now from the relentless wind and hail. The station has a huge golf-ball-shaped dome on top, often visible from many miles away, on a clear day, but we couldn’t see it even though we were right next to it. In the dense fog the building reminded me of some desolate spot only seen in Doctor Who, and I half-expected to turn around and see some unconvincing hairy monster with big teeth and glowing red eyes stomping toward us. We had to put some more clothes on to get warm, so we first tried knocking on the door of the station in the hope that some lonely operator might take pity on us and give us shelter for a while in the hope that the hailstorm would die down. No one answered though, so either they couldn’t hear us, couldn’t be bothered, or there was no one there in the first place.

Failing to find proper refuge, we found one side of the station that was relatively protected from the storm and put on some trousers and more upper layers. Darryl was concerned for both of us now, especially since we were both tired, very cold, and he for one didn’t have a great deal of body fat, making him vulnerable to hypothermia. I remember feeling a little foolish, but it wasn’t like we were climbing Everest, and the weather in the valley below had been so misleadingly warm.

We got moving as soon as we could, not wanting to stand around getting colder, and made our way around the station again to where the route should have continued. Unfortunately we couldn’t find it straight away, and it was some minutes and some considerable frantic hunting later before we got ourselves back on the route, marching first down a slippery, grassy bank, then onto wet flagstones, many of which were actually submerged in dark water. As we stomped along the stones as fast we dared, desperate to get out of the horrible fog, hail and wind, I retrieved a flapjack from a coat pocket (the only food I had left that was not in my pack) and ate it, hoping it might give me an energy burst. I slipped a couple of times on the stones but luckily managed to recover my balance on both occasions. This really did feel like endurance, and it would prove difficult later on in the day to believe what a nightmare time we’d had.

We barely registered the fact that we’d crossed from Great Dun Fell to Little Dun Fell, as we were flying along as fast as we dared, the descent, ascent and descent again, the only indication that we’d crossed another peak. I’m not sure exactly how much time passed, but it seemed like an eternity before we found ourselves climbing the stone slabs toward a soggy summit that had to be Cross Fell, the highest point of the Pennines. Cross Fell was known until fairly recently as Fiend’s Fell, and considering how much of the year it spends covered in snow and mist, it’s not difficult to see why.

The desolate plateau was all rocks and short grass. It was hard to make any sense of it, and finding our way with the rain-soaked guidebook wasn’t as straightforward as we’d have liked. We followed first one trail then the other, consistently going nowhere, until we found a narrow path that turned off and then straight down the side of the fell, in the general direction we needed to be heading in. Our hearts lifted as we saw several features that corresponded to those on our map, and after a quarter of an hour spent descending the side of Cross Fell, we began to drop below the cloud (for it was this we had been stuck in rather than actual fog) and were able to see the valley once more. We even saw two walkers heading toward us from the direction of the Corpse Road that led to Garrigill, and a few minutes later we stopped and chatted to them, no doubt playing down our ordeal to avoid embarrassing ourselves. We asked them if Greg’s Hut (a mountain refuge) was far, and they said they didn’t recognize the name but had seen some kind of hut on the way up. We left them and walked on, arriving soon afterwards at the welcome sight of Greg’s Hut, where we stopped to get out of the cold, have a rest and cook some food.

The hut is a stone building built by walkers for the benefit of other walkers, and though inside it is quite Spartan and functional, it is a welcome shelter for those seeking refuge, and in some cases, somewhere to spend the night. We sat down and got the stove going, cooking up some packet couscous that Darryl had bought in Middleton. The food wasn’t great, but it was certainly nice to have a hot meal and to get off our feet. The main room only had a few chairs, some sparse decoration and a book for people to write their names and experiences in. I wrote a few notes, can’t remember exactly what, and signed it from the both of us, then had a look in the other room, where there was a stove and sleeping platform where several people could huddle together. I read the instructions for lighting the stove and heating the hut, but it all sounded so time-consuming and complicated that I didn’t bother trying. Besides, we couldn’t stay long anyway, so we just put up with the cold as we rested, then left the hut for the next band of travellers to enjoy.

Outside we joined the long Corpse Road from Cross Fell to Garrigill. The road is wide and easy to follow, but it is also hard and unkind on the feet. Its surroundings are bleak, for the most part being heather moorland and old, disused mines with their spoil heaps and waste materials strewn across the road in many areas. The road continues for several miles, and though we knew it eventually led to Garrigill, not far from Alston, our stop for the night, it seemed to be a long slog, and we could have done with some nicer scenery to look at. At least it was warmer now, and seemed to be getting warmer still despite the day progressing into the afternoon. At a couple of points we stopped so that one or both of us could relieve ourselves, paranoid that someone would come along the road at the wrong moment, though this was highly unlikely. An hour or two later, Darryl suggested taking a short cut that would get us to Alston quicker, avoiding the walk through Garrigill altogether. On reflection this wasn’t such a good idea as the short cut was tough, over very dodgy ground, and we may have been able to buy supplies in Garrigill which would no doubt have alleviated some of the misery of the following day.

We cut into a field on the left, and headed down it in the direction of the River Tyne. There was a green, dotted line on the map marking a path, but we could barely see it on the ground as we meandered over grass-covered hills, humps and ditches, wondering why we weren’t having better luck with our route-finding. A while later we emerged onto a road, and looking back we were able to see the fearful helm of cloud clinging to Cross Fell, the summit obscured by the white, tumbling circle. Along the road we turned right and headed down to the river, where we followed a rough path until we had to turn and climb up a small hill toward a drive or farmyard where the route then continued high above the river.

We reached a small copse of firs, and it was here that we got a little lost. We looked around for Pennine Way signs, or indications of a trail, but it was almost like it had disappeared. Once again we decided to play it safe and find a road that would take us to Alston, avoiding the Pennine Way. It seemed like we were closing in on the town, and we could even see glimpses of it now, but we were tired and aching and just wanted to collapse, so every footstep was an effort and we couldn’t get to our destination fast enough. I for one was fed up. Darryl was talking to me but I wasn’t in the mood to reply. The situation wasn’t his fault, he’d done a great job of navigating the whole day as far as I was concerned, but I was dejected, miserable and sick of so much walking without any real relief. I knew he felt the same way though, so moaning wasn’t going to achieve anything.

We came to a field on our left, and locating the youth hostel on the map, decided we’d need to walk down the field to get to the river. We met a woman walking her dog, who confirmed that we were going in the right direction and gave us further directions. We reached the end of the field, passed by a cemetery and playground in which suspicious youths were laughing and larking about, then found ourselves in the middle of a cul-de-sac where we stopped to look around. A disembodied voice suddenly called out:

“Through that archway!”
“Ok, thanks,” we called out, looking for the source of the voice but finding nothing, before heading through said archway, back down toward the river and along to an attractive building that turned out, to our delight, to be the youth hostel. To add to this delight, we were now back on our original schedule, having made up all those awful miles we’d lost days before. All the hardship seemed worth it now. We’d regained our footing on the trail (so to speak), and were now focussed very intently on reaching the finish.

Inside the hostel we organized our room (again we had one all to ourselves), then asked about having our clothes washed and dried. This was fine, and all we had to do was leave our clothes in a basket at the bottom of the stairs. We were told that the evening meal had already been served, but that the cook could reheat some of it for us if we wanted. We answered very enthusiastically in the affirmative, and once we’d taken our packs up to our room, and showered we headed back downstairs (painfully, as our feet were finally getting an opportunity to realise just what we’d done to them) to the dining room, where we were given soup and bread, Spaghetti Bolognese and ice cream. We felt truly spoiled, and though I bought a couple of drinks and chocolate bars from reception for later, we’d really had our fill. I had a quick look at the drawing room before we went back upstairs. It was a lovely layout with armchairs, a bulging bookcase and a good view outside from the big window. It would have been great to have reached the hostel a few hours earlier and just relaxed for a while before dinner. Not for us though. Once we’d returned to our room, used the bathroom again, sorted out our dirty washing and put some things in the drying room, we got into our beds and looked forward to oblivion, hoping (yet again) that the next day would be easier.

 

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